Sunday, May 19, 2024

ARP312 Huddy-Asgill Affair

By the spring of 1782, the main Continental Army under George Washington had settled back into defensive lines around British occupied  New York City.

Following their loss at Yorktown, the British had given up on all offensive operations in America.  Britain had begun discussing peace terms with American commissioners in Europe.  Many believed the war would soon be over and British rule in America at an end.

Charles Asgill
There was one group who feared this result even more than the leaders in Britain.  They were the loyalists.  American colonists who had stood by the King.  They had also risked their lives, their fortunes, and their honor in this dispute.  As it was coming to an end, that was proving to be a bad bet. They stood to lose everything, including possibly their lives if convicted of treason in the newly independent United States.  They were living as outlaws or under British protection that might soon go away.

The loyalists, also called Tories, continued the war from British occupied New York by continuing raids into New Jersey.  Many of these loyalists were New Jersey natives who had taken refuge in New York.  Leading the effort was the royal governor of New Jersey, William Franklin.  Benjamin Franklin’s son remained a committed loyalist, still fighting to bring the colonies back under crown rule.

Even after Yorktown, the loyalists continued their raids, by some accounts becoming even more brutal.  British General Henry Clinton noted that he believed these loyalist refugees in New York intended to prevent “all future reconciliation between Great Britain and the revolted colonies.”

Capture of Huddy

In late March 1782, the loyalists conducted a raid on the town of Toms River, New Jersey.  They targeted the town’s salt works.  About 80 loyalists took whaleboats to make the 50 mile journey to the patriots down on the New Jersey coast.  The Patriots at Toms River were commanded by Joshua “Jack” Huddy.

Captain Huddy was an active patriot and a longtime leader in the New Jersey militia.  He had spent much of the early war fighting his loyalist neighbors, forcing many of them to take refuge in New York.  Many loyalists asserted that Huddy was a murderer who had no compunctions about executing loyalists when discovered in New Jersey.  One particularly notable event happened in 1777. Huddy was involved with a group that captured and hanged an alleged spy named Stephen Edwards, who was taken from his bed at night, given a quick trial and then hanged.

Later in the war, Huddy received a letter of marque from the Continental Congress, authorizing him to use his whaleboat to target British boats and settlements along the New Jersey coast. Huddy had some successful seizures, which he had sold at auction in Toms River.

Huddy’s reputation made him a target to be killed or captured.  In September of 1780, a loyalist force led by an escaped slave named Titus tried to capture Huddy.  Titus was an active loyalist, given the nickname of Colonel Tye for his efforts on behalf of the loyalists during the ongoing guerilla war in New Jersey.

Colonel Tye surrounded Huddy’s home with several dozen loyalists.  Huddy managed to hold out for some time with the help of only a servant girl, who reloaded muskets as he fired from multiple locations inside the house.  Apparently, he had a whole cache of muskets that he had confiscated from loyalists in the area.  Eventually, the loyalists set the house of fire, forcing Huddy to surrender.

The loyalist tied up Huddy and put him aboard a whaleboat for return to New York as a prisoner.  The local militia, however, turned out in time to attack the loyalists.  They got into a firefight, killing six of the enemy.  During the fight, Huddy was shot in the hip, probably by his would be rescuers.  He still managed to escape his captors and swim back to freedom.

The following summer, Huddy had largely recovered from his wound and took command of the blockhouse in Toms River.  When the loyalists attacked in March 1782, Huddy commanded about 25 patriot militia, who took refuge in the block house.  Eventually, they ran out of ammunition and had to surrender to the larger attacking force.  The raiders burned the town and carried Huddy back to New York in a whaleboat - this time successfully.  There, the militia captain was held in the notorious Sugar House Prison for a time and aboard a prison ship in New York Harbor.

The British then transferred Huddy to William Franklin’s loyalists, believing they wanted to trade him for a loyalist prisoner being held in New Jersey.

Up Goes Huddy for White

Instead, other events intervened.  About the same time the loyalist captured Huddy, another loyalist, Philip White also crossed enemy lines into New Jersey.  There are conflicting accounts of what White was doing in New Jersey.  By some accounts, he was conducting a raid. By others, he was just visiting his wife.

Capt. Huddy led to his hanging
In any event, White was a wanted man.  As a member of Franklin’s Associated Loyalists, White had participated in the past in numerous raids in New Jersey, killing and wounding several patriots.  Two years earlier, White had been part of an attack on the home of a patriot named John Russell.  In the attack, Russell was wounded and his father killed.

When White returned to New Jersey in late March 1782, Russell managed to capture the man who killed his father.  Exactly what happened next was also a matter of dispute, but the undisputed part is that White was killed.  The patriots claimed that White was shot and killed while trying to escape while being transferred for trial. The loyalists in New York believed that the patriots, specifically Russell who was avenging his father, had killed White in cold blood, then mutilated his body, then buried him in a shallow grave.

Huddy, of course, had nothing to do with the death of White.  He was in British custody at the time of White’s death.  But when word of White’s death reached the loyalists in New York, they were outraged.  White’s brother in law, Loyalist Captain Richard Lippincott, took custody of Huddy.  He and his men promptly took him to a tree on Sandy Hook, New Jersey and on April 2 unceremoniously hanged him without trial.  They put a placard on his body that read “Up goes Huddy for Philip White.”

The New Jersey militia, friends of Huddy, recovered his body, and the placard.  The militia called on Washington to take action regarding this outrageous murder of a prisoner of war.  Otherwise, the militia would stop taking any prisoners when they were capturing loyalists.  New Jersey was in danger of becoming like the southern colonies, where prisoners were routinely murdered after battle.

Washington’s Response

The execution of an American prisoner was something Washington had to take very seriously.  Since the war began, Britain had threatened to treat American prisoners as captured criminals - guilty of treason and subject to hanging.  The only reason this did not happen was likely due to threats by Washington and others in the American leadership that if American prisoners were hanged, they would begin hanging British prisoners.

Less than a year before this incident, the British had called the American’s bluff by hanging Colonel Isaac Hayne in Charleston (See Episode 293).  The Americans had threatened retaliation then, but ended up doing nothing.  Now the Continental leadership was faced with a second execution.  There had to be some sort of response.

Washington received word of Huddy’s hanging in a letter from the Monmouth, NJ Militia.  He was staying in Newburgh, New York at the time.  Within days, he convened a council of general officers and regimental commanders at West Point.  Twenty four officers participated in the deliberations, among them Major Generals William Heath was the senior officer. Robert Howe, and the Baron Von Steuben also participated.

Washington submitted all the documentation he had, and asked the council to answer four questions: 

  • 1st Upon the State of Facts in the above Case, is Retaliation justifiable & expedient?
  • 2d If justifiable, Ought it to take place immediately? Or should a previous Representation be made to Sir Henry Clinton & Satisfaction be demanded from him?
  • 3d In Case of Representation & Demand, who should be the person or persons to be required?
  • 4 In case of Refusal & Retaliation becomg necessary, of what Discription shall the officer be on whom it is to take place; & how shall he be designated for the purpose?

Each officer wrote out his own answer to each question.  On the first, they unanimously agreed that yes, retaliation was justifiable and expedient.  On the second question, the vast majority thought a demand of satisfaction to General Clinton would be appropriate, although a minority argued for immediate action - just hang someone, right now.  To the third question the majority believed they should demand Captain Lippincott, the loyalist officer in command of hanging Huddy, should be turned over for trial and execution.  To the fourth question, if the demand for Lippincott should be refused, the majority answered that a British captain should be selected at random and executed.  Several officers qualified this by saying the selected captain should be one who was captured in battle, not one such as those captured at Yorktown or Saratoga, who were promised certain guarantees of good treatment in exchange for surrender.

Washington acted on the answers, writing to President John Hanson to let Congress know what he was planning, then to British General Clinton to demand that Lippincott be turned over, or that a British Captain would be selected by lot and hanged.  Hanson did not respond, but Congress voted unanimously to support Washington’s plans in this matter.

Even before receiving Congress’s response, Washington wrote to General Clinton to demand Lippincott, or whoever was responsible, be turned over.  If not, Washington would order a British captain to be executed in his place.  Washington told Clinton “To save the innocent, I demand the guilty.”  

Clinton’s Departure

Clinton’s  response expressed “Surprise & Displeasure” at the tone of Washington’s letter and its “improper language”.  He assured Washington that he had only become aware of Huddy’s hanging a few days before he received Washington’s letter.  This was about a month after the incident took place.  Clinton assured Washington that such an act of cruelty was not the policy of the British Government nor his personal standards.  He had ordered an inquiry into events and would bring those responsible to trial.  He then scolded Washington for even considering hanging an innocent British officer.  He called it an act of barbarity.  Clinton went on to say it was up to each army to punish the wrongdoing of their own officers and men.

What Clinton left out of his letter to Washington, was the fact that this was not going to be his problem for much longer.  On March 27, about two weeks before Huddy’s hanging, Clinton had received a letter from Lord Germain that his resignation as Commander of North America had been accepted.  The following day, Clinton received a second letter that had been written several weeks after Germain’s letter.  The second letter was from Germain’s replacement Wellbore Ellis.   It informed Clinton that General Guy Carlton was on his way to replace Clinton.  Until Carleton arrived, Clinton should turn over command to General James Robertson.

Recall that Clinton hated Robertson.  The general simply refused to turn over command.  Robertson, who was also the Royal Governor of New York, protested, but there was not much else he could do.  Clinton outranked Robertson within the military.  Both men were also probably well aware by this time that the North Government had probably fallen or was still in the process of falling so that getting any clear direction from London for a while would probably be impossible.

Clinton did actually take some action in the matter. After receiving Washington’s letter, he ordered Lippincott arrested and held for court martial.  William Franklin, who was the head of the loyalists, objected that Lippincott was not a soldier and should not be tried by court martial.  Clinton ignored the objection and convened a court martial of 16 officers headed by General Robertson. Clinton was pretty confident this was not going to be resolved before he left.  He was right.  The Court martial convened, but was still considering the matter when General Carleton arrived on May 5.

Clinton hung around for another week before departing for London aboard a ship with the departing Hessian commander General Wilhelm von Knyphausen.  Clinton would return to begin his public feud with Cornwallis over who was responsible for Yorktown.  Knyphausen was simply headed home for retirement.


With no satisfactory response forthcoming, Washington continued with the selection of a British captain to become the victim of American retaliation.  Washington wrote to Colonel Moses Hazen, who was responsible for the British prisoners of war being held in western Pennsylvania and Maryland.  He ordered that a British captain be selected by lot and sent to Philadelphia.  Washington initially requested that an officer be selected from those who had been captured unconditionally in battle, not those who had surrendered and were given terms of protection as part of their surrender.  However, when it turned out that there were not captains that met that former criterion, Washington permitted lots to be selected among thirteen captains who has surrendered with the Army at Yorktown.

Day Tavern in Chatham, NJ
where Asgill was held awaiting execution
Remember that most officers at Yorktown had been paroled and allowed to return home.  The only officers being held were those who had been retained to keep the enlisted prisoners in order.  The prisoners were gathered at the Black Bear Inn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  When informed the captains refused to draw lots.  They viewed this how process as immoral and illegal, and would play  no part in it.  In response, the Americans simply put their names in a hat.  In another hat, they placed 12 blanks and one marked “unfortunate.”  A drummer boy then drew a slip from each hat.  On the eleventh draw, Captain Charles Asgill’s name came up, along with the slip “unfortunate.”

Asgill was the youngest captain, having just turned 20 years old a few weeks earlier.  He was from an important family.  His father had been Lord Mayor of London.  Asgill joined the army at age 16, against the wishes of his father.  He had been promoted to captain less about a year earlier, a promotion he probably regretted by this point.  Upon hearing his fate, his commanding officer told him only “For God’s sake, don’t disgrace your colors.”

The unfortunate prisoner was carried first to Philadelphia, then to Chatham, New Jersey, the area where Captain Huddy had lived.  He was kept under close confinement, amid particularly hostile neighbors who had erected a gallows with a sign that said “up goes Asgill for Huddy.”


While there had been a pretty strong call for blood among the Americans after Huddy’s hanging. Once Asgill became the face of American vengeance, opposition to his execution became more vocal. Even Colonel Alexander Hamilton wrote to Washington, saying that murdering an innocent man would greatly damage Washington’s reputation.  Washington may have had second thoughts, but at this point he could not back down.  He feared that doing so would mean that neither the British leadership, nor anyone else, would trust his resolve.  

Washington delayed final execution, perhaps waiting for a determinative response from the British army.  General Carleton had suspended the Lippincott court martial almost as soon as he arrived, and debated simply turning over Lippincott, who he regarded as a criminal.  Turn him over to the Americans and make this whole thing go away.  That, of course, would have greatly angers the loyalists.  In June, Carlton also disbanded William Franklin’s Association of Loyalists, which had taken Huddy from British custody. Around this same time, Franklin left New York for London.

The court martial reached its decision in late June - not guilty. The court concluded that Lippincott had only been following orders given to him by William Franklin and that he believed his actions were in the line of duty, and not out of malice. 

Carleton then seemed to embark on a policy of procrastination to avoid any action against Asgill.  He wrote to Washington about the court decision in July, two weeks after the verdict, but failed to include the court records.  

Then, after more than a month, Carleton announced that the records were ready and asked for permission for Chief Justice William Smith to carry those records to Washington.  Carleton said Smith could provide further explanation.  A frustrated Washington responded that he was sending General Heath to meet with an officer at the British front lines and that any explanation could be in writing.  Carleton then responded he would just mail the records and Washington could get them soon.  In this case, the mail took another two weeks to arrive, far longer than normal.

Having received the court records, Washington still hesitated to act. Instead, he forwarded the records to Congress and asked them again what it wished to do. By this time, it was late August, almost five months had passed since Huddy’s hanging.

The delay gave Asgill’s advocates time to act.  Most specifically, his mother, Lady Asgill, wrote to the French Foreign Minister Vergennes pleading for her son’s life.  Lady Asgill argued that her son had surrendered to the French at Yorktown under their word that he would be protected and not subject to reprisals.  She called upon French honor to request her son’s life be spared.

Vergennes sent the letter to the King and Queen of France, resulting in a request from Queen Marie Antoinette requesting the release of Captain Asgill.  Meanwhile for months, Congress dithered and failed to reach a decision.  A majority still wanted to hang Asgill.  Finally, in November 1782, after receiving the letter from Vergennes it changed its determination.  It voted to release Asgill as a gift to the King of France.

In late November, Asgill was released.  He rushed to New York, only to find that a British packet ship had just left.  Anxious to return home, Asgill abandoned his luggage, commandeered a row boat and sailed after the ship.  He managed to catch it, boarded it and returned home in time for Christmas.

The Americans never took vengeance for Huddy’s murder.  However, the dispute, which lasted for about eight months, maintained a particular state of bitterness between the two countries.  Carleton had hoped to ease relations as the British reduced resources in America.  He also hoped to reach some plan for the exchange of prisoners.  The Americans had about 12,000 British prisoners by this time.  The result of this ongoing dispute kept the two sides at a higher level of hostility and prevented any large-scale prisoner exchange.

Next week: we head west again, as the Americans push into the Ohio Territory, hoping to stop continuing Indian raids into the area around Fort Pitt.

- - -

Next Episode 313 Crawford Expedition

Previous Episode 311 Battle of the Saintes

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Further Reading


Asgill Affair:

Damon, Allan L. “A Melancholy Chase” American Heritage, Feb. 1970.

Duke, Clair To Save the Innocent, I Demand the guilty: The Huddy-Asgill Affair, Kansas State Univ. 2017.

Documents of the American Revolution, Joshua Huddy Era:

Ward, Matthew H. “Joshua Huddy: The Scourge of New Jersey Loyalists” Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 8, 2018.

“To George Washington from John Covenhoven, 14 April 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to John Brooks, 19 April 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to John Hanson, 20 April 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Henry Clinton, 21 April 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Henry Clinton, 25 April 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Moses Hazen, 3 May 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Moses Hazen, 18 May 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Washington Came this Close to Killing an Innocent Man:

Video: Discussion of Joshua Huddy with Author Robert Mayers:

Video: Prof. Peter Enriques on The Asgill Affair (Prince William Public Libraries):

Video: Charles Asgill, Setting the Record Straight (Anne Ammundsen):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Humphreys, David The Conduct of General Washington: Respecting the Confinement of Capt. Asgill, New York The Bollard Club, 1859. 

Mayo, Katherine General Washington’s Dilemma, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1970 (originally published 1938) (borrow only).

Paine, Thomas The American crisis, and a letter to Sir Guy Carleton, on the murder of Captain Huddy, and the intended retaliation on Captain Asgill, of the Guards, London, Daniel Isaac Eaton, 1796. 

Stryker, William S. The Capture of the Block House at Toms River, New Jersey, March 24, 1782, Trenton: Naar, Day & Naar, 1883. 

 Vanderpoel, Ambrose E. History of Chatham, New Jersey, New York: Charles Francis Press, 1921. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Ammundsen, Anne The Charles Asgill Affair: Setting the Record Straight, Heritage Books, 2023. 

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Fowler, Willam H. Jr. American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years after Yorktown, 1781-1783, Walker & Co. 2011. 

Glickstein, Don After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence, Westholme Publishing, 2015. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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